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Lent: celebration or cancellation?

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

In a little over three weeks on 17th February it will be Ash Wednesday.

Will we be together in church to mark the beginning of Lent? I shouldn’t think so.

A woman marked with an ashen cross on her forehead

Will we participate in the imposition of ashes? I doubt it very much.

Practically speaking how would the imposition of ashes work in this time of pandemic when we are required to observe social distancing and avoid physical contact? Even wearing a fresh pair of medical latex gloves for each parishioner (or making use of a “cotton bud” as we do at present for the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick), the priest could not mark ashen crosses on one forehead after another. What about a “help yourself” idea? But that wouldn’t work either if there were to be one communal container of ashes into which each parishioner in turn dips a finger or thumb – a possible transmission risk. Some denominations prepare communion wine in individual, almost thimble-sized cups. Could ashes be prepared and distributed in such a manner? Logistically, the whole idea of ashes on Ash Wednesday is fraught with both with medical hazard and impracticability.

Guidance is lacking: certainly, the church nationally has been no better than H.M. Government in forward planning for different eventualities. It is not the least apparent that the God-given opportunities presented by the on-going experience of the pandemic are being grasped for a re-visioning of church and the practice of faith. What we do hear about endlessly, however, is the drop in church income and the anxiety that those who have not returned to church since March may never return. Those who yearn for a return to the prevailing status quo pre-COVID are blind to the current, lived reality of people’s lives and faith experience – the so-called new normal. I cannot for one moment seriously contemplate how the “Sunday Obligation” (CIC, can. 1247; CCC §§ 2180-2183) could ever be re-imposed after it has been suspended and (shock, horror) the life of worship has continued quite happily without it; after all, like much else in terms of “obligation”, this has for so long been something more honoured in the breach.

Guidance will come … eventually, but it’s always unhelpfully late in the day especially when others are trying to plan. We know that Easter happens every year. At the very least there should already be a Plan A (to fit with a notable reduction in virus transmission, a great number of vaccinations completed and the gradual easing of lock-down measures) and a Plan B (for a situation of increased transmission of virus variants and additional lock-down measures) out there. The reality, I suspect, will probably be somewhere between the two. I suppose that, at worst, the same pattern as last year may be followed. At the moment I don’t anticipate a communal celebration of the Easter Triduum. Thank goodness the Pedilavium, Mandatum or Washing of the Feet on Maundy Thursday only ever takes place “where a pastoral reason suggests it”. Perhaps at best we may hope for Masses on Easter Sunday.

There have been plenty of comments that the experience of the first lock-down and life since has felt like one continuous experience of Lent and the (now realised) hope of a vaccine was the promised light and hope of Easter. True as that may seem, it doesn’t mean that you don’t need to mark and make use of the up-coming season of Lent in your own life. How will you use this season of grace and preparation? Will you be taking part in Invited! the new diocesan mission during Lent? Will you be making additional devotions? Praying the Stations of the Cross? Practising different forms of self-denial? I’m sure that in the coming weeks you will find useful ideas and suggestions appearing on the parish website.

Your Parish Pastoral Team will be meeting next Monday, 1st February, and let you know our thoughts as soon as possible afterwards. In the meantime, keep checking the website.

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